Will Researchers Agree to More Transparency in Animal Experiments?

10/04/2013 12:54 BST | Updated 10/06/2013 10:12 BST

Chris Magee writes in the Huffington Post "We all agree" that the European ban on animal testing for cosmetics is "fantastic news" that has been "a long time coming", but that the research community parts company with animal protection campaigns that seek to end animal testing for veterinary and medical uses.

This prompts several thoughts.

1. The ban on animal testing for cosmetics was fought by industry to the last ditch. The suggestion that we now all agree about it is welcome but surprising, and seems designed to try to shore up support for the remaining areas of animal testing, in the manner of a retreating army blowing up bridges behind them.

2. If it is in fact the case that the animal research community now only supports medical and veterinary experiments on animals, will they now support the BUAV as we argue for an end to the testing on animals of ingredients primarily used in household products? The Government has previously promised this - and the arguments are actually entirely similar to the cosmetics issue - but now appears to be backsliding and promising only a ban on the testing of finished products (which virtually nobody does) rather than ingredients. The support of the research industry on this before the decision would show a constructive approach. Do we really still need to be testing toilet cleaner or paint on animals to demonstrate that these substances may be harmful if poured over the skin?

3. Chris Magee writes that "The position of Understanding Animal Research is to base the debate on the facts", a position which we could indeed all support. With that in mind, will UAR support the effort to end the secrecy imposed by Section 24 of the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act and bring animal experiments under the Freedom of Information Act? This would allow the disclosure of what is actually done to animals in detail, with the location and scientists involved anonymised and commercially sensitive data redacted. Once this was done, we could have a mature, informed debate on which experiments, if any, are acceptable to most people. At the moment we are debating in the dark, which really doesn't help either researchers or animal protection campaigns like the BUAV as we work to find the best way forward.

4. Chris Magee notes that animal research is often about the application of knowledge gained from animals to humans. However, that transition fails with alarming frequency. For example, a paper published in the Proceedings of the American National Academy of Science and reported in The New York Times describes how, in a project that started 10 years ago, a group of 39 researchers from across the USA teamed up to find out which genes are involved in the human body's response to deadly inflammatory diseases. They began by collecting white blood cells from over 400 patients with severe burns, trauma or sepsis to discover what genes were being used to generate the inflammatory response.

The researchers discovered significant patterns that seemed to be able to predict which patients would survive the infections. Shockingly, when they tried to publish their findings, the study was rejected by several journals because they did not demonstrate the same gene response in mice. Dr Ronald W. Davis, a genomics expert at Stanford University and a lead researcher in the project said, "They were so used to doing mouse studies that they thought that was how you validate things. They are so ingrained in trying to cure mice that they forget we are trying to cure humans".

After the rejection of their human data set, the scientists then decided to investigate if the responses were indeed similar in mice. When they compared gene responses in mouse models of inflammatory disease with the patterns found in humans, they were unable to find a single similarity; in fact the responses in mice were close to random in matching the human data. In some cases, genes that seemed to play a part in the mouse form of the condition were not even involved in the human condition. Dr. Mitchell Fink, a sepsis expert at the University of California told the New York Times; "When I read the paper, I was stunned by just how bad the mouse data are. It's really amazing - no correlation at all. These data are so persuasive and so robust that I think funding agencies are going to take note." The paper claims that so far, out of 150 clinical trials aimed at testing potential drugs to block the inflammatory response in critically ill patients, not one has proven successful.

Isn't it time we moved on?